What the hell ever happened to guitar rock? Y’know, the post-Daydream Nation kind that pushed its instrument of choice into places it was never really meant to go, not the primitivist stomp or nu-metal clatter that passes for the stuff these days. The early half of the ’90s was the alt-rock heyday of heavy ax exploration, and back then it almost made sense that even Drive Like Jehu could earn a major-label contract.

Try to forget for a moment that the San Diego quartet’s 1994 Interscope debut (and swan song), Yank Crime, is one of the strangest major-funded rock records ever—right up there with Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Dr. John’s Gris Gris. At the time, Jehu’s brave expansion of hardcore into art rock and metal felt just right; by transcending punk rock’s three-chord dead end, the quartet seemed to be putting out the welcome mat for the future. But Jehu’s spiraling six-string duels disappeared into the ether around 1995, when guitarist John Reis switched off his frontal lobes and committed full time to Sha Na Na impersonators Rocket From the Crypt.

Fast forward to 2000: Employing a stripped-down, garagecentric sound, Reis and fellow Jehu singer-guitarist Rick Froberg resurface with a brand-new band, Hot Snakes, and a traditionalist punk debut, Automatic Midnight. Coincidentally or not, the 21st-century climate of ’70s-rock simplicity finds the band fitting into fashion again by largely abandoning complexity. Whereas Drive Like Jehu was single-mindedly angular and bluesless, as Hot Snakes, Reis and Froberg have chosen to struggle with both their avant-garde and their backassward impulses.

“I Hate the Kids,” the first track on Hot Snakes’ second and latest full-length, Suicide Invoice, is the perfect example of the group’s weird tension: Slapping together atonal string-bending and rumbling punkabilly riffs, the band members sound as if they can’t make up their minds between giving the youth what they want and giving them what they need. Sure, there’s plenty of wicked noise that could point the way to something better, but there’s even more for the average Strokes/White Stripes/Hives fan to shake his ass to. It makes you wonder how deep these guys’ hatred for the younger generation really is.

And there’s plenty more Froberg-described “pretty simple punk” to come. The lyrics of “Gar Forgets His Insulin” may nod to the progressive metarock of the Minutemen, but the music is pure “Rawhide” rip-off. As Froberg screams, “Gar wouldn’t listen/He’s in an airlock/He’s in an iron lung,” drummer Jsinclair races at pony express speed and the guitars give chase with X-style cowpunk raunch. “Paid in Cigarettes” and “Bye Nancy Boy” follow suit, smearing on so much Link Wray-ish guitar grease that you’re soon dying to cleanse the palate with something a bit more modern.

Luckily, Reis & Co. provide some refreshment with the title track, one of the few songs here that kicks ass in the present. Cataloging the regrets of a suicide-pact cop-out, the song taps into the bottomless sadness of a relationship gone awry: “You and I made a pact/Only you would keep/And now I answer to you in my sleep,” sings Froberg. Whereas most Hot Snakes songs rely on the vocals to carry the tune, “Suicide Invoice” wisely shifts the bulk of that responsibility to the guitars. As the narrator escapes into the night—”When I dream/I keep my promises to you/I really do”—the six-strings burst into an urgent ascending motif that screams Yank Crime. “LAX” employs a similarly winning strategy, centering the guitars on melody instead of rhythm: Froberg and Reis twist a beautiful, trebly riff around a half-baked mantra (“Jet propulsion/Jet-propelled”) that’s unexpectedly elevated by the gracefulness of their interplay.

Of course, a couple of killer tunes do not a great record make. Although it’s exhilarating to hear Reis and Froberg trading snaky licks again, it’s also frustrating that the results sound so earthbound. The once-intrepid guitarists never launch into those delirious future-now forays of yore, and even the best moments here are more Jehu surrogate than the real thing. Despite its scattered successes, Suicide Invoice ends up sounding too much like punk in the past tense.

The four guys in D.C.’s Golden have followed almost the opposite trajectory, gradually moving toward, instead of away from, a unique, forward-looking sound. Golden’s whims have led the group through numerous stylistic changes, with the quartet delivering almost-too-accurate takes on everything from heavy post-punk and Texas blues to urban slow jams and Afro-funk. But Apollo Stars, Golden’s fourth full-length, is the first time it all comes together into a unified aesthetic.

The snare-heavy dance rock of standout track “Goldenization” finds guitarists Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff blending intricate high-life and electric-blues picking to delirious effect. A recent performance of the song at Arlington’s Iota even featured Minoff quoting John Coltrane during a solo. (Yup, screw punk rock: Golden plays solos.) Yet unlike the band’s previous replications of Fela Kuti’s Afro-beat (the Golden and Rhythm-Beat Jazz EP) or ZZ Top’s bluesy boogie (the “Violator” 7-inch), “Goldenization” doesn’t so much create a pastiche as discover the common ground among several disparate styles.

“Feel This Flow” and “Napenda Judy (Lakini Bad)” occupy the same sonic space, leaning heavily on African folk music, electric blues, and funk. Throughout, the guitars are right on target, but the lyrical concept is oblique: Though the formerly all-instrumental Golden makes reference to “Apollo” in just about every song, it’s never clear whether the group is singing about a spaceship, a pizza place, or the Greek god of music. On “Feel This Flow,” bassist Phil Manley and drummer Jon Theodore hammer out a relentless azz-backin’ rhythm while Eagleson and Minoff sing, “I fly on the Apollo/You seem to be in the know/We’re trying so hard to perceive the flow.” The lyrics of the Memphis-by-way-of-Lagos stomper “Napenda Judy (Lakini Bad)” are equally inscrutable: “Apollo pizza/Put it in your mouth/Don’t mess with Judy/’Cause she comes from the South.”

Those jams are definitely golden, but the disc is truly precious when the guys rock “Ma Petite Est Mariee,” “Side 2″‘s leadoff. Squeezing something brand-new out of ’60s French and Ethiopian pop, the song gorgeously layers heartfelt vocal melodies with clean, winding guitar lines. As Eagleson sings, “It’s never easy, boy/To get what you’re searching for/Nah-now-now/Nah-now-now/It’s never easy, girl/Don’t make it hard on yourself,” the guitarists underscore the words with lonesome streams of sound, creating something that’s sad and beautiful and about as blissful as a big ol’ happy drunk. Unsurprisingly, it’s also the first time on Apollo Stars when the listener actually has a chance with the lyrics.

Conversely, the disc slumps a bit whenever the music becomes too obvious. “Henry Earl Ansell” bites pretty hard on the Peter Green-era-Fleetwood Mac vibe, and “The Other Side of the Sun” takes the blues back down Texas way, sounding like perennial Golden fave ZZ Top. But for the most part, Apollo Stars represents a new take on guitar rock, in the grand tradition of Sonic Youth, Drive Like Jehu, and other early-’90s superstars. Granted, the album ain’t heavy in a balls-out, distortion-laden way, but this thing is seriously free of nostalgia. Let’s all cross our fingers and hope that it’s a long time before Golden gets off the Apollo. Whatever that is. CP

More from WCP